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Rebels Collapse in East Aleppo & Civilians Flee; Turkey’s Position Weakens; Diplomatic Emergency

Next Cold War Roundup 11/29/16:

Syrian coalition forces broke through to East Aleppo and recaptured territory, working with Kurdish YPG forces. Al Qaeda-led rebel forces are collapsing. Thousands of civilians fled to government-held West Aleppo and to a Kurdish district. Turkish forces and their FSA allies, Syrian coalition forces, Kurdish forces, and ISIS are all battling for al-Bab. And more, in our roundup…

Syria: East Aleppo

East Aleppo, Saturday: Syrian Army Reclaims Hanano Neighborhood

_ On Saturday, the Syrian Army captured a neighborhood, the Hanano district,  in the northern part of East Aleppo. Hanano was the first part of Aleppo seized by Syrian rebels in 2012.

_ The Syrian coalition forces are advancing in a move that the rebels and jihadis claim is intended to split East Aleppo in two.

_ Russian airstrikes had been halted in East Aleppo since Oct. 18 but resumed on Nov. 15 with cruise missiles and airstrikes on targets in Idlib, Homs and Aleppo.  The Syrian coalition ground offensive on East Aleppo began shortly afterwards and has been named Operation Dawn of Victory. Several attempts to penetrate different parts of East Aleppo preceded the capture of Hanano.

East Aleppo, Sunday: Rebels Rapidly Losing Control

_ As of Sunday afternoon, the al Qaeda-led rebel hold on East Aleppo was collapsing rapidly. Civilians were escaping by the thousands. AFP reported that more than 4,000 civilians fled to relative safety as the government forces captured 2 more neighborhoods, Jabal Badra and Baadeen, and they attacked on multiple fronts with bombardment from the Syrian air force.

_ Throughout the day on Sunday, reports of government and Kurdish forces freeing other neighborhoods in the northern part of East Aleppo were reported.

_ The Syrian Observatory reported that the more than 4,000 civilians who fled to the Kurdish Sheikh Masood district or the government-held West Aleppo.

_ Heavy shelling of West Aleppo from rebels in East Aleppo continues.

_ Kurdish forces in Aleppo are also advancing on the rebels in East Aleppo. AP reports that the Kurds claimed that they are operating autonomously from the Syrian government as they seized the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood and freed thousands of civilians who fled to the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood district, according to an official from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

_ AP reports that Syrian government forces “pushed into the city’s Sakhour neighborhood, coming within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of commanding a corridor” that will split East Aleppo, isolating al Qaeda-led rebels on either side.

East Aleppo, Monday: Nearly 1/2 of Rebel-Held Territory Recaptured

_ A Syrian university student posted a photo of Syrian army and Kurdish YPG members raising both of their flags on a building in the Bustan al Pasha neighborhood in East Aleppo, and says they are working together in a joint operation. A video was also provided for those skeptical that the Syrian army and Kurdish YPG are working together in Aleppo.

_ Edward Dark, reporting from Aleppo, relays photos of the Syrian army at the water plant in Slieman Halabi, which they have recaptured from rebel jihadis who abandoned it, leaving booby trap IEDs behind. Dark says they were “using city water supply as a weapon.”

_ “Ehsani2”, who has sources inside East Aleppo, and has been doing dispatches for some months now, relays a report from a civilian who left with about 1,000 others. His source says they were given supplies and a room when they arrived. He did not see any jihadi rebels surrendering. “They are mostly retreating to Shaar, Zebdiye, Fardous, Bustan al Qasr and Mashhad.”

_ Al Masdar News reported that 10,000 civilians had fled East Aleppo on Sunday. “Unfortunately, dozens of people were caught in crossfire while others were blantantly shot by insurgents.”

_ Al Masdar also reported that the Syrian coalition forces are taking “district-after-district” and the strategic rebel stronghold, Sakhour, is now under government control.  Some members of the Zinki rebel group surrendered to Kurdish forces near the Sheikh Maqsoud District to avoid the Syrian army. Al Masdar estimated that 45% of East Aleppo has fallen to Syrian and Kurdish forces, which is a much more rapid pace than expected.

_ After the rebel collapse in the northeastern part of East Aleppo, Syrian forces began to advance to the districts in the southeast. Southfront’s SITREP report from Nov. 28 provides maps and animated representations of the offensive and lists the members of the Syrian coalition as: “Syrian army’s Republican Guard, the Syrian army’s Tiger Forces, the Desert Hawks Brigade, Liwa al-Quds and other pro-government groups.”

_ There are numerous video interviews with civilians who escaped East Aleppo.

East Aleppo: Overstating Number of Civilians

_ Moon of Alabama (MoA), Ehsani2, and a few others have long maintained, based on the reports of very few journalists who actually visited East Aleppo in recent years, and on Ehsani’s sources in East Aleppo, that the number of civilians in East Aleppo has been deliberately and grossly overestimated, perhaps by a magnitude. Western media and officials, in hundreds or even thousands of articles and statements, religiously reported that about 250,000 civilians there. The UN reports it too. As the rebel hold on that part of the city collapses and civilians flee as soon as the rebel jihadis abandon their posts, it is looking like the MoA camp was right on this issue, and it’s a very important issue for many reasons. The early reports must be taken with caution, of course, but after recapturing roughly half of East Aleppo, the highest number of fled civilians reported so far has been 16,000.

_ Early reports said 4,000 civilians had fled from East Aleppo with most going to the government-held West Aleppo. The reported number grew to 10,000 on Monday, and early Tuesday one report of 16,000 was made. These numbers are of course very fluid while intense fighting is in progress.

_ The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria, Scott Craig, still maintains that there are 250,000 civilians in East Aleppo, according to the BBC.

Syria: Battle for Al Bab

_ Syrian forces are advancing on Al Bab from the west, as are Kurdish forces, and some of the Kurdish forces are coordinating with Syrian government forces. Turkish coalition forces are advancing from the north. ISIS currently holds al-Bab, but not for long. War correspondent Elijah Magnier claims that Turkey had an agreement with ISIS, an “understanding where ISIS would pull forces from the city without a fight, as was the case in Jarablus.”

Syria: Syrian Airstrike on Turkish Troops Near Al-Bab and Russian Revenge

_ Emergency phone calls and meetings were initiated by Turkey over the weekend with Turkish President Erdogan calling Russian President Putin on Friday, another call from Erdogan on Saturday  Saturday and a trip to Tehran on Sunday by the Turkish prime minister and head of national intelligence.

_ The reason for the urgent diplomacy was a Syrian airstrike on Turkish troops as they advanced on Al Bab with their Free Syrian Army allies on Nov. 24, the 1-year anniversary of Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet. War correspondent Elijah Magnier notes that Russia coordinates and approves all air activity in Syria, and with this airstrike, Russia got its revenge and stopped Turkey at the gates of al-Bab.

_ Turkey and Russia have a complex relationship and history, as Magnier explains in this analysis. Russia viewed the shootdown of their fighter jet as a US/NATO action carried out using Turkey as a proxy. In August, Russia, via Iran, saved Erdogan’s life by tipping him off about the coup attempt. Russia and Turkey then made an arrangement which allowed Turkish troops to conduct Operation Euphrates Shield, which foiled the “US plan to divide Syria and create a Kurdish state” in northern Syria along the border. The Turkish-backed rebels working with Turkish forces in Operation Euphrates Shield came from Aleppo, which weakened rebel forces there, to Syria and Russia’s advantage.

_ However Erdogan overstepped his bounds with Operation Euphrates Shield and “wanted to expand further.”   Having apparently given up his expansionist plans for Aleppo, Erdogan wants to create a “Turkish-aligned entity” in the triangle between al-Bab in the west, Manbij in the east, and Raqqa in the south.

_ Turkey has also been playing both sides, or even more than 2 sides. Erdogan made demands about the expedited US-led race for Raqqa, insisting that the Kurds not be part of it, and that the timing be delayed until after Mosul was secured.  Erdogan also made statements indicating that Turkey would be a part of that operation, Operation Wrath of Euphrates, as part of the US coalition. This also caused a problems with their “understanding” with Russia.

_ Syria not only bombed the Turkish forces in al-Bab, it has now, with the backing of Russia, begun to enforce the sovereignty of its air space against Turkey for the first time in its history.

Magnier: “Erdogan is weaker than ever in relation to Iraq and Syria: he failed to impose his will regarding participation in the attack against the capital of the caliphate, Mosul, or even the smaller city of Talafar. And today he can’t materialise his dream to annex Aleppo, and his forces are stopped at the gates of al-Bab. If he continues toward Raqqah there is a huge risk: he will have to face a superpower: Russia.”

_ On Tuesday, Erdogan said the only reason he invaded Syria was to seize land and give it back to its rightful owners, the people of Syria, and he intended to “end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad.” Erdogan made the comments at the first Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium in Istanbul.

Syria: Opposition Will Continue

_ The chief negotiator for the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition umbrella group, the HNC, said the revolution will continue and the opposition still holds a lot of territory in other areas, but the peace negotiating process is likely dead now due to the Aleppo offensive by the Syrian government forces.

_ Qatar’s foreign minister said Qatar will continue to arm Syrian rebels even Donald Trump ends U.S. backing for them. Reuters reported: “Qatar was determined to carry on, Sheikh Mohammed said, sipping tea in his spacious office on the ministry’s top floor overlooking the Gulf.”

Syria: No-Fly Zone Bill in US Congress

_ US House of Representatives passed a bill, House Resolution 5732, the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” sponsored by Democrat Eliot Engel, to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, presumably rushing to pass a bill that could be signed by a US president. Rick Sterling at Consortium News frames it as a lame duck Congress “moving to trap President-elect Trump into a war escalation in Syria.”

_ The bill got its name from a fraudulent story about torture photos, created by the CIA to sabotage the 2014 Geneva peace negotiations. Yet another Western “propaganda hoax” that is the hallmark of this war.

Kerry Urges More US Intervention, Scrambles For Agreement With Russia

_ At a women’s foreign policy event, Sec. of State John Kerry urged against isolationism.

_ After very loudly and officially cutting off bilateral talks with Russia in recent months, John Kerry has “significantly intensified contacts with Russia on Syria” according to RT and the Kremlin.

_ Yury Ushakov, an aide to Russian president Putin said:

Ushakov: “This [effort] could be called unbelievable, in terms that there have never been so many phone calls between the Secretary of State and Russia’s FM which were focused on discussing a single issue – Syria.”

_ Josh Rogin, a strongly pro-neocon hawk journalist at the Washington Post, wrote that Kerry is engaged in a “furious if implausible diplomatic effort to strike a deal with Russia to end the siege of Aleppo,” motivated by the humanitarian crisis and by the unexpected electoral win by Donald Trump, who might “strike a different kind of deal with Moscow, one that abandons the Syrian opposition and places the United States squarely on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad.” In Kerry’s proposed deal, the US would agree to separate the “moderate rebels” from al Qaeda, and force the al Qaeda fighters to leave Aleppo. In recent months, Kerry had been heavily using the prospect of Hillary Clinton interventionist presidency for leverage in his negotiations.

_ Last week, Wall Street Journal reported that President Elect Trump’s son met with “diplomats, businessmen and politicians”in Paris in an attempt to find a way to cooperate with Russia and end the war in Syria.

Syria: France Calls for Emergency UN Security Council Meeting on Aleppo

_ France called for an immediate UN Security Council meeting and said it would “press for a U.N. resolution to punish the use of chemical weapons in Syria.” At a meeting in Minsk on Ukraine, French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said “said Syrian government forces and their allies would not resolve the Syrian conflict by carrying out one of the ‘biggest massacres on a civilian population since World War Two.'” The French and British ambassadors to the UN said they were jointly calling for the meeting for Tuesday or Wednesday.

_ Syria’s deputy foreign minister said “the multitude of accusations, made in some Western circles without any tangible evidence, as to the responsibility of the Syrian government in cases of use of toxic chemicals, are but a part of a coordinated and repeated campaign of lies.”

_ Turkey has accused ISIS of chemical weapons attacks and the Russian ministry of defense says it has evidence of Syrian rebels using chemical weapons in Aleppo but the UN refuses to send specialists to investigate despite multiple requests.

Israel and ISIS Clash in Golan Heights

_ Haaretz reported “first direct clashes between Israel and the Islamic State on Sunday in the southern Golan Heights” after an ISIS-affiliated group in southern Syria, Shuhada al-Yarmouk,  allegedly opened fire on the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. An Israeli air force “aerial vehicle” retaliated by bombing one of the ISIS group’s vehicles.

Iraq: Airstrike on PMU Militias

_ Several days before the airstrike, US military spokesman Col. Dorrian reported that the Iraqi Shiite militias had cut off ISIS western route in and out of Mosul: “They’ve stopped Daesh from being able to escape or to bring in more fighters. That’s been a very effective move by the government of Iraq and thus far it’s worked out very well.”

_ Rudaw reported that the Iraqi militias are working with other forces in the area, including the PKK.

Iraq: Civilian Casualties in Mosul

_ The Washington Post cites the watchdog group Airwars on 80 civilian deaths and 160 injuries caused by air and artillery strikes by the US-led coalition during the operation to date. The US military disagrees with Airwars’ numbers and claims that at least 119 civilian casualties have occurred in all US anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes since 2014.

Iraq: Iraqi Troops Bogged Down in Mosul

_ Iraqi special forces are in urban Mosul but large numbers of  “ordinary military units are still stalled far outside of the city, unable to handle even the limited resistance they’ve seen that far away,” according to Antiwar.com.

Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia

_ Egypt has sent officers to Syria to assess the situation and prepare for Egyptian forces to join the Syrian coalition. There are also reports that Egypt has sent pilots to Syria.

Yemen: Hadi and US Troops Arrived in Aden

_ Exiled Yemeni president Hadi arrived in Aden on Saturday. On the same day, US troops arrived in Aden, according to Yemeni Haykal Bafana, who said they might be “on the way to Al Anad airbase in Lahj which they fled in April 2015.” Bafana also said: “It is not entirely clear who these American soldiers are : They do not appear to be the expected CT drone-piloting AQAP-hunting crowd.”

_ Lastly, Bafana reported “unusually heavy Saudi naval movements off Al Mokha” and airstrikes that seriously degraded communications.

Yemen: Hadi’s Militias Terrorizing Medical Staff in Hospitals

_ The pro-Saudi, US-allied rebel militia groups organized by Yemen’s exiled leader, Hadi, are terrorizing hospitals and medical staff im Taiz, Yemen, according to Amnesty International.  The militias position themselves near medical facilities and force medical staff to treat their armed fighters in situtations where they are refused treatment in situations where their injuries are not emergencies or the hospital is full.

Libya: Haftar Goes to Moscow

_ Sputnik News reported that Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, an officer connected to the Tobruk government in eastern Libya, arrived in Moscow on Sunday for an “official visit.” Haftar’s forces are affiliated with the rival Libyan government in Tobruk and has been mainly focused on fighting ISIS. Haftar also visited Moscow last June.

_ A pro-Russia blog reported that Haftar met with “Ministers Shoigu and Lavrov, and that he had also convened with Russia’s Security Council” and they talked about strengthening ties and cooperating to bring stability to Libya. Haftar is seeking arms, training and support from Russia.

_ Egypt’s president al-Sisi publicly admitted that his government “has been providing support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar” and that it is Egypt’s national priority to “to back up national armies, for example in Libya, to assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements.” There had been reports of support for LNA from Egypt and the UAE, including mystery airstrikes in 2014 which was the UAE air force launching from an Egyptian air base.

_ Skeptics see this as a desperate bid by Haftar for survival, say Moscow knows he is a “has been” and won’t give him much but a slap on the back, and wonder how long Sisi himself will be around or will be able to fund Haftar.

_ Last week, Middle East Memo reported that Haftar called for the arms embargo to be lifted and told French TV that: “We have only light arms. We need heavy arms. If we have those arms there will be no more Daesh [in Libya].” The majority of the UN Security Council opposes lifting the embargo. Russia is “sympathetic” toward it.

_ In an interview on Australian TV, King Abdullah of Jordan says that Muslim countries are trying to work together to get Muslims themselves to reject and fight against the small percentage of Muslims who are terrorists, and sometimes the West interferes with that:

Abdullah: “This is the challenge we have sometimes with the West, where a lot of us in the region are now into the battle of this, and when we hear of peace initiatives or discussion of of the promotion of governments, Libya is a prime example, where a lot of us see certain individuals on the ground who are actually taking the fight to the extremists, at this stage, you know, people want to come in and look at the democratic process of Libya, and we’re saying, “Guys, we’re in the middle of a war, and war for us is very clear. It’s them against us.”

War on Terror Formally Expanded to Include Somalia

_ Pres. Obama has officially added al-Shabab to the list of “perpetrators of 9/11” war authorization from 2001, even though technically al-Shabab did not exist then, which brings up some legal issues, to say the least.

_ The addition of al-Shabab to the 2001 war authorization was reported by the New York Times on November 27. The next day, an attack on Ohio State University campus was attributed to an 18-year old or 20-year old (reports vary) Somali refugee and there was speculation that it was an ISIS-inspired attack because an ISIS magazine this month suggested using cars to plow into crowds. This might be an unfortunate coincidence but it will be hard to know if there is any connection since the suspect is dead.  9 victims were injured.

_ A local NBC affiliate reported: “OSU president Michael Drake says the sole suspect drove a car into a group of people, got out and began to cut them with a butcher knife. A police officer arrived within a minute of the attack and shot and killed the attacker.”

Analysis & Opinion

_ An article about “Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East,” a book by Christopher Davidson. Dr. Davidson also did an interview (at 1:53:00) on Bloomberg TV.

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Joanne Leon

Joanne Leon

Joanne is a blogger with focus on issues of war and peace, a mom, engineer, software developer and amateur photographer.